Chuck D said, "Elvis was a hero to most, but he didn't mean shit to me."
Bruce Springsteen said, "That Elvis, man, he's all there is. There ain't no more. Everything starts and ends with him."
Worshiped and despised, Elvis Presley is still, 15 years after his departure, all things noble or all things rancid, depending on whom you ask.
Multiple questions keep puzzling us. Did he originate rock n' roll or steal it from black culture? Did he revere his mother or just want to sex her up? Is he six feet under Graceland's Meditation Garden or living with amphibious mutants in the remains of the Titanic?
Set aside the blathering personality cult and moronic mythology that have sprung up post-Elvis. What do Public Enemy, the Boss or the tabloids know, anyway?
John Lennon pronounced simply, "Before Elvis, there was nothing." And he was right, at least as far as rock n' roll was concerned. Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Fats Domino and countless others may have laid the groundwork, but it took Elvis Presley to spearhead their musical creation and thrust it upon a bewildered world. Someone else might have done it, but it was Elvis who did. For that service, he is called "The King."
Elvis may be the most popular entertainer in recording--or, for that matter, recorded--history. For more than 35 years, a steady parade of Presley paraphernalia has saturated the marketplace--some of it irresistible, most of it not. Even with his life scrutinized to the smallest detail, the hunger for Elvistic effluvia continues unabated.
With the approach of August 16, the anniversary of his death, the stores are glutted with an all-new assortment of the King's keepsakes. Ignoring the trivial and stupid, like comedic "Elvis for President" pamphlets and exposs on his "current activities," here is an overview of the significant items that shed some new light on their subject:
First is the just-released Unseen Elvis: Candids of the King (Bullfinch Press, list price $29.95), a photographic portfolio compiled from the private collection of superfan Jim Curtin.
Curtin, an impersonator and aficionado whose existence seems solely devoted to Elvis, presents 406 never-before-published portraits of the King, more than half in color. They span the length of the Memphis Flash's career, gathered in chronological chapters from "The Fifties" to "Final Decline."
A large portion of the amateur pictures shows Elvis hugging and kissing a tiresome stream of giddy women. The women look dumbfounded, the object of their affections bored. Only once does Elvis look anything but placating, and then he's injecting his tongue into a mirthful devotee's mouth--a peekaboo tidbit that proves Elvis really loved some of his fans.
Many of the other images are outtakes from familiar sessions, but there are some gems: Elvis the sportsman at buddy George Klein's wedding, wearing a shouldered handgun and aiming a scoped shotgun above the gaping guests' heads; Elvis the humanitarian trudging through a shattered car wreck to comfort the victims, looking like Dracula in a leather trench coat in front of the gaping paramedics. Moments to cherish!
Curtin's brief text interrupts the photos with a trite rendition of a lifetime most already know. More interesting are Curtin's stories of his own Elvian experiences. Curtin is a sweet-spirited yet pathetic fanatic, displayed on the book jacket in full Elvis regalia. Anyone who makes $122 per week as a grocery store clerk and spends it all to bribe his way into Elvis' hotel suite has a problem. Curtin comes off both twisted and tender, but hard-core fans will relish his tribute.
Of greater interest is a compact disc release of That's the Way It Is (RCA, list price $29.98). Originally pressed on vinyl in December 1970, it's billed as the soundtrack to a documentary film of the same name. Actually, only a couple of the disc's dozen tracks were lifted directly from the movie score. The rest are either live alternates from his August 70 stint at the International Hotel (now the Las Vegas Hilton) or cuts from a Nashville studio session two months earlier.
What separates That's the Way It Is from any other Presley rerelease--and doubles the price tag--is the incredible sound quality. This is the first and only pressing of an Elvis original master recording from Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs. Specializing in presenting classic albums (like Pink Floyd's The Wall or Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road), MFSL records at half the normal speed from the original tapes, ensuring the ultimate in aural reproduction. The disc's 24-karat-gold plating prevents corrosion, and the owner could supposedly use the CD as a flying saucer for the next century without substantial damage.
That's the Way It Is seems a strange choice for such a devoted process. Far from a classic album, it took two and a half years after its debut for the LP to be certified gold. But why question corporate providence when That's the Way It Is contains such treasures and sounds so great? Crank the music loud, close your eyes, and you'd swear that a show lounge had materialized in your living room. Every nuance of Elvis' performance springs to life, including several audible mistakes.
If That's the Way It Is sounded any better, Elvis' sweat would sting your skin. The King projects most of these songs with enough energy to power the Vegas Strip. This is the regret-ridden Elvis, a man still in control of his talent but aware of his crumbling marriage and career--post-68 comeback, pre-bloated drug zombie. Remorseful odes like "Just Pretend" and "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" aren't just sung, they're bled. His moving version of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" is enough to erase the memory of the Righteous Brothers' version altogether.
There's drivel, to be sure. Nothing could be worse than "Mary in the Morning"; its banal lyrics fit Elvis' lackadaisical execution. A studio cut of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," dubbed with applause to sound live, pales in comparison to the unimprovable original by Simon and Garfunkel.
Still, That's the Way It Is remains a must for even the cursory collector.
Along the same lines is the video Elvis: The Lost Performances (MGM/UA Home Video, list price $19.98). This hourlong tape is comprised of material trimmed from the final prints of That's the Way It Is and the 1972 follow-up documentary Elvis on Tour, both outstanding, if exclusively flattering, live-performance vehicles.
The romantic tale of the footage's discovery reads like Holy Grail lore: In 1986, vault inspectors accidentally uncovered a cache of lard cans hidden in a Kansas salt mine--one of Ted Turner's MGM library storehouses. Inside were negative outtakes from the two concert pictures.
Most of The Lost Performances comes from the August 70 International Hotel concerts. Much of the remainder is from May 72 appearances in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and Greensboro, North Carolina. The division testifies to Elvis' rapid deterioration: In 70 the King is tan, robust and bouncing with vitality; two years later he's wan, lazy and listing with boredom. Only a rendering of "How Great Thou Art" seems to snap him out of the doldrums (or maybe a narcosis). A ten-minute segment of a laid-back Elvis rehearsing in the studio separates the live sequences.
The reason these scenes were edited is evident. Many contain musical errors (three false starts on one tune and Elvis forgetting the words to "Hound Dog," of all things) or moments that shatter his carefully cultivated image.
Shots of the King throwing water on his pianist, snickering at the lyrics to "Don't Cry, Daddy," interjecting "Hot damn!" and "I'll kick your. . ." into "Don't Be Cruel," and seemingly flipping the bird at the band weren't exactly welcome additions to Colonel Tom Parker's creation of Elvis' public persona. It's only good-natured clowning around for Elvis, just breaking the monotony of an umpteenth reprise of another Presley standard.
Elvis: The Lost Performances will satisfy studious Presleyphiles while anesthetizing the average viewer. Casual fans would be better off purchasing the source material or the two-volume collection Elvis: The Great Performances from Buena Vista Home Video.
Finally, the Presley piäce de rsistance--and perhaps the finest Elvis product yet conceived: a deluxe boxed-set Elvis--The King of Rock N' Roll: The Complete 50's Masters (RCA, list price $79.98 on CD, $64.98 on cassette).
This five-disc compilation contains every completed master recording released by Elvis from the moment he strolled into Memphis Recording Studio in the summer of 1953 to record "My Happiness" for his mother's birthday--an anniversary eight months away and a gift Gladys never received--to his first leave from the Army in June 1958, which he spent recording singles in RCA's Nashville Studio to satiate fans while their idol endured the service.
In between those historical sittings are the seminal Sun sessions, the complete soundtracks to Love Me Tender, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole, Gospel songs, Christmas songs, B-sides, live performances, and unreleased material. 140 tracks of pure, savage, young Elvis, from Hillbilly Cat to God Emperor of Rock.
The King of Rock N' Roll represents a major step for RCA. For years the company has been screwing the Presley adherent out of every last penny, constantly releasing shoddy compilations of poorly engineered material--like fake stereo mixes that sounded worse on compact disc than real mono eight-track cartridges. Consequently, a buff who assembled a group of significant Elvis recordings ended up with 50 copies of "Teddy Bear," each sounding worse than the one before. RCA insulted Elvis and his listeners with budget-bin chicanery.
The King of Rock N' Roll handles Elvis' music with respect and is sure to be regarded as the definitive history of Presley's artistic aplomb for years to come. (One wonders if detractors like Chuck D will be saluted with glorious retrospectives 35 years hence. Or even remembered.) Bertlesmann Music Group (the parent company that purchased RCA, primarily for the King's catalogue) commissioned a five-person international committee two years ago to resurrect Elvis in style. This is the group's first accomplishment, and plans call for similar boxed sets covering the rest of Presley's career to appear over the next few years.
Elvis controlled all but his first recording sessions. Unlike the wind-up automaton movies ruled by the Colonel, the King himself dictated exactly how his records should sound. Unfortunately, RCA frequently cut corners by using the aforementioned substandard reproductions. The King of Rock N' Roll allows us to hear the restored classics as Elvis did from the playback booth, and the results are startling. Songs like "Blue Moon," "Long Tall Sally" and "A Fool Such as I" are improved to the point of being unrecognizable. Guitar riffs and vocal subtleties previously lost in a sea of hiss leap out at the listener, redefining tunes heard even hundreds of times before.
Listening to the fifth disc, subtitled "Rare and Rockin,'" is akin to opening an Ark of the Covenant. Of the 26 seldom-heard tracks, 14 are previously unreleased. Uptempo versions of "Ain't That Loving You Baby" and "Loving You" pose the question, "Why weren't these the hits?" The long-rumored-to-exist "Fool, Fool, Fool" finally manifests itself along with some live cuts from the Southern tours of 54 and 55.
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Also included is the final appearance, May 6, 1956, of the infamous New Frontier Hotel gig. These were Elvis' first appearances in Las Vegas, and the King met with such antipathy (He's no Dean Martin!) he wouldn't return until 1969. Downgraded from headline to opening act, Elvis peppers the brief show with coy insults aimed at the stone-faced, older audience. Amid some boos and only a smattering of applause, he apologizes for a forced encore. It's funny to ponder that Elvis would wind up practically owning that town, and that the cretins he tried to appease would forever burn in rock n' roll hell. Historical content like this is hard to beat.
So's The King of Rock N' Roll's packaging. A 92-page book accompanies the discs, complete with a scholarly text, exhaustive liner notes, sessionography, discography and photographs. The only dross is a sheet of stamps depicting the Fifties record covers, a gesture commemorating the recent postal debates. The useless bonus is sillier considering the same labels are duplicated inside the booklet and only serves to get in the way of closing the box.
Perhaps a national mandate should be declared: On August 16, 1992, all grimy-haired Guns n' Roses disciples, all sanitized Garth Brooks bumpkins, all gangsterized Ice-T zealots, all blue-bouffanted Muzak junkies and every other remaining citizen will listen to Elvis--The King of Rock N' Roll in its entirety. Just sit down, shut up, and see how it's really done.
LIFE OR DEATH DECISION... v8-12-92